“If you voted for Biden,” she wrote, “you are still my friend. If you voted for Trump, you are still my friend. We are all friends and neighbors, no matter what.”
Can you argue with that?
The writer is a 20-year-old college student; smart, pretty, popular and well-grounded. Someone who actually believes that business about loving one’s neighbor, and doing unto others as one would like done unto oneself. The problem is, she wrote those lines not on some old-fashioned email or piece of paper; she wrote them on Twitter – which commands a worldview of its own. It was posted months ago – eons, in Twittertime, but nothing in Twitterworld goes away.
Thus the post was discovered recently by an erstwhile friend who decided a lesson needed to be taught: This tweet clearly indicates that the writer is a Trump voter, the friend decided. No sensible non-Trump person could befriend a Trump voter, therefore the writer is a bigot and a racist and no longer welcome in any known friend group. Shunning followed. Friends took sides. Incredible amounts of time were wasted.
Yes I know, it all strains credulity. The re-tweeter is obviously unstable or worse, someone with a distorted self-image and too much idle time. Truth does not figure in, anywhere. But Twitterworld does not seek truth, only agitation and activity – which quickly develop once such stupidity begins.
Here is the question: In a world where Twitter rules, is there any hope for Truth? When words taken out of context can quickly become distorted and accepted as ‘fact,’? When scrolling through a couple of cellphone feeds passes for being informed and ‘friendship’ twists and turns with a tweet?
Maybe, if we ever slow down.
For a while it appeared the pandemic might teach us to slow down; but then came zoom and we zoomed ahead at breakneck speed. What might have been slowed down at in-person events was instead accelerated via digital and social media. But here is the gleam of hope:
What if, on spotting an argumentative tweet, post or whatever, one were to bite one’s digital tongue and NOT hit Reply? Or even better, not hit Retweet/Share/Re-post? What if, instead, we could cultivate the old-fashioned practice of speaking person-to-person? Even on an old-fashioned phone of some sort? What if we could revive the old-fashioned practice of saying, “Tell me what you mean, what you’re thinking.” The old-fashioned custom of cordial dialogue.
That would bring us all the way back to “You are still my friend.” A long, slow journey.
My friend M reports losing five pounds since starting a new weight loss/mindfulness program. The next door neighbor is training for a marathon in the fall. Actually, I’m signed up to do the (virtual) Rabun Ramble 5K, having plotted an acceptable route in San Francisco not quite as challenging as the real Ramble’s North Georgia hills, but who’s checking? Liz, one of my longtime best friends, is working with an editor on the memoir that many of us, not just her family, have been pushing her to do for years.
You’d think it was New Year’s.
Actually, that seems to be where we are: at the beginning of a new year, a new age. What kind of an age it will be is still anybody’s guess, as is how long it might be until we’re officially in it. All those unvaccinated people out there are sitting ducks for the coronavirus still roaming the country, and who knows how many variants are planning coming-out parties with their antecedents’ approval. It’s hard not to be grumpy about the unvaccinated. Granted, everyone has the right to choose not to be vaccinated, I suppose, but thank heaven for the millions who did get the vaccine and thereby made it possible for this New Year’s Day to dawn. Maybe some day the unvaccinated will at least find it in their hearts to appreciate the vaccinated.
Those of us who have been trying to keep the literal faith throughout these dark months, with a little help from Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, have found that being back in churches and synagogues is particularly celebratory. This writer’s return to the Presbyterian pews coincided with Pride Week and couldn’t have been more rainbow-filled. We were even singing from behind our masks – with the blessing (or approval, at least) of the City of San Francisco.
And then there is the indoor dining-out business. Friends of mine on both coasts are absolutely giddy about discovering old restaurants feared long gone, along with new eateries popping up all over the place. In San Francisco, to the dismay of parking space seekers and absolutely no one else, parklet dining – the street spaces taken over by beleaguered restaurants during the pandemic – seems here to stay. But being able to sit inside a quiet (OK, more often noisy) restaurant and enjoy a meal without the accompaniment of traffic noise feels like a new day indeed. “Restaurant X is back!” as the subject head of a Facebook or Twitter thread suddenly morphs into a list too long to comprehend as one friend after another adds one returned eatery after another.
New Year’s Day, of course, seldom dawns without some residual hint of New Year’s Eve and the old year behind. This old one left us with a lion’s share of hangovers: friends and loved ones taken by the virus, personal and congregate losses too many to count, an entire year of suspended existence. But here’s a pearl of wisdom dropped by a very wise friend in a recent Sunday sermon: “Happiness is to joy as whining is to lament.” Work on that one if you want.
Meanwhile, here’s to the happiest of New Years for M, for Liz, and all the rest of us.
One more strange thing during the dark days of Pandemia was my sense, much of the time outdoors, that I may have been the only person in San Francisco without a dog. Crossing the dog play area while doing my par course thing at Mountain Lake Park, skirting the similar space in Lafayette Park, or walking along any of San Francisco Bay’s limitless varieties of woods and beaches – I have felt acutely dog-less. Despite having had and loved a long list of family canines; I am currently without. And in recent times that has seemed particularly unseemly.
“You want to know how to stay busy in a pandemic?” my daughter Sandy said to me, early on; “get a puppy.” Scooter had joined her household as lockdowns were just beginning. Although theirs is a multi-dog household that leans toward rescues, Scooter was chosen because he was a purebred Catahoula Leopard Hound, and in a sense a replacement for Blue. Actually, no creature could replace Blue, who had been at my son-in-law’s side for 17 years before succumbing to cancer and the vicissitudes of very old dog age. In one of his countless obituary remembrances someone wrote, “Blue taught all the dogs at the lake how to be dogs.” But eventually Scooter, a multicolored Catahoula with one brown eye and one blue, was chosen to join the family.
While I was a continent away from the growing Scooter, I followed his progress throughout the pandemic on Facebook and on countless videos as he learned (more or less) where to dig or not dig, what to chew or not chew, all those niceties of canine upbringing that are far easier to watch online than to teach onsite. But they kept me entertained and Scooter’s family busy.
Two other dogs close to my heart were central to pandemic survival for their human moms and, by extension, me. Unlike young Scooter, Ringo and Delilah are both certified old dogs. I am partial to old dogs. This is partly thanks to my excellent late husband Bud’s book Old Dogs Remembered, but also because, well, we understand each others’ aches and pains and geezerly stuff.
Ringo, 14, whose official name is Ringo Dingo Django Durango, or RD3, was not partial to me in his youth. He customarily started barking about the time my car entered the driveway, and didn’t stop until he had sniffed and grumbled for at least five minutes. But we soon became cordial acquaintances, and by his middle-age and my confirmed geezerhood we were fast friends. One of Ringo’s primary daily occupations is patrolling the exquisite rose garden spilling down the hillside from his home. The back-breaking daily work involved in keeping the roses, fruit trees and other flowers flourishing perhaps doesn’t require Ringo’s attendance. But I’m satisfied that his company helped get my friend Margaret (the Ringo-namer and chief gardener) through the pandemic and constantly able to post beautiful photos of blooms to get me through.
But briefly back to Scooter. Sadly, Scooter went way too far in providing diversion from the pandemic. Several months ago, just before his family was heading back to the east coast from a winter vacation, Scooter went missing in the Wyoming forests near Jackson. No amount of searching, calling, whistling or pleading to the canine gods could get him to appear. So the family went mournfully home, finally accepting, at the end of the four-day drive (drives with large dogs take time) that he was likely dead of hypothermia in the sub-zero snows. Hypothermia, we all agreed, would not be that terrible because you fall asleep before you die. (Please don’t try to clear that up with scientific fact; it’s a comforting thought.) But the next day came a report of a Scooter sighting.
Thus began the most exhaustive search and rescue operation in this reporter’s long history of tracking operations of every sort. After flying back to stay with generous friends, Sandy took to getting up at 5 AM in order to ski out and fry bacon on camp stoves in areas where a sighting was thought to have occurred – the smell of frying bacon being something most of us, including dogs, as it happens – find worth following. No luck. She left articles of family clothing inside comfy kennels in the snow. Game cameras positioned near foodstuffs got some excellent photos of foxes – but no Scooter. Flyers were posted. Rewards offered. Drones flew around the forests to no avail. Even with the remarkable assistance of a Boise-based nonprofit called Ladies and the Trap, whose fit and determined volunteers devote themselves to finding lost pets and reuniting them with their humans – no luck.
In the end – or perhaps it’s still the late-beginning, or the middle – no one knows Scooter’s whereabouts but Scooter himself. Unless he has a secret admirer and protector. His family has settled into a three-possibility resolution: He did indeed die, quickly and relatively painlessly, of hypothermia in the Wyoming snow country. Or. Someone took him in and began to love and care for him; someone unaware of (or uninterested in) the microchip beneath his skin or the rewards posted for his return. Or. He will, one day, mysteriously reappear. Stranger things have happened, say the Ladies who Trap – and others.
And meanwhile, all along there has been Delilah the Wise. Delilah lives in Southern California with her family, which fortuitously includes my cousin Jan (we have Virginia roots; cousins extend in Virginia to the 7th in-law generation at least.) Jan, a comedian, keynote speaker, comedy writer, and author, was available – thanks to the virus cancelling every gig she had lined up – to help Delilah find her voice.
So. “Good morning, everyone! Delilah here,” said Delilah, brightly, on a regular basis, via Facebook and thanks to the miracle of modern video-manipulation. “I hope you’re enjoying the day.” (Or words to that effect.) Delilah was consistently anxious to get us all through the darkest days. Early on (3/26/20 to be precise,) this was one of her suggestions:
“Today we’re going to play a new game! It’s called Guess What’s in That Zip-Lock Bag in the Freezer! All you do is dig wayyyy back into the back of the freezer and pull out all of the zip-lock bags. So far, Jan has found one full of orange stuff, and another with, umm, chicken bones? Just eat whatever is in it! Enjoy your dinner and relax. Let me know how it goes.”
Thus did Delilah get us through week after tedious week. Sometimes it would seem even too much for Delilah herself – at which point she would scramble to the end of the sofa and commence digging a hole all the way to China. At last report, she had not yet made it through, but if a virus variant returns she may get there. Delilah, who her family says is perhaps a “pugzu” – some sort of pug/shih tzu mix rescued years ago from the Burbank Shelter, is somewhere around “12-ish” in dog years. With age clearly comes wisdom.
So with apologies to playwright John Patrick, to whom the original version is first attributed:
The pain of the pandemic surely made us think; what else was there to do? Thought makes us wise. And wisdom – especially the wisdom of old dogs – makes life bearable.
Recently I joined the ranks of the vaccinated. A great relief for an octogenarian, which I have been for quite some time. But, as has been or will be true for most citizens, about the time I rolled my sleeve back down I was beset by other emotions: guilt, angst and a nameless fear for my fellow citizens and the country at large. Not unlike the feeling one has when walking back to a warm home for dinner on a rainy day – and passing a motionless figure huddled in a doorway.
America is facing yet another division between the haves and have nots, the entitled and the shoved aside, but this one is a division between life and death. Here’s how that plays out, from the vantage point of one newly-vaccinated. I am also among the Haves: white, upper middle class, living in an expensive assisted-living facility. We the elderly are, of course, among the most vulnerable. Many of us have underlying health problems; all of us have the problem of being old. Which means we tend to die faster and in greater numbers if we get covid-19. It is admittedly scary to be old in a deadly pandemic. But should I be first in line? Should I have been ahead of my granddaughter’s teacher? Already my granddaughter has lost the experience of a normal senior year in high school. My friends’ grandchildren have lost other school years. How can we possibly weigh the safety of our own health against the hopes we have for our grandchildren’s future? If we simply concentrated on getting every teacher vaccinated and schools made as safe as possible, this might give our children and grandchildren at least a modicum of educational normalcy. Most of us would at least give that some thought.
But then again. Why shouldn’t essential workers be at the front of every line? Those driving the buses, cleaning the streets, making it possible at least for our cities and country to function. The janitors and cooks who make it possible for medical personnel to function. The vast majority of these bottom-level workers are Black or brown, so the vaccine divide feeds straight into the ongoing divide of racial and economic inequality. Even given the technological challenges of many seniors, most of us in the middle class at least have the skills and resources with which to check around for vaccine availability. But should that put us in line ahead of the less-advantaged who make getting in line possible? What about childcare workers? Millions of parents depend on these generally underpaid women (they’re almost always women) to look after their children. If childcare workers are somewhere far back in the line, their own lives are in jeopardy and the ripples of disrupted lives among their small clients and wider families are incalculable.
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to prioritize vaccine distribution by age drew an immediate outcry from the disability community. How can this sizable demographic, which seems perpetually destined to fight one battle for survival after another, not be at the front of the vaccination line? Mobility problems beset many in this community; others have compromised immune systems that make them dangerously vulnerable. My lungs are compromised from being old, but they weren’t helped any by those years I smoked in my teens and twenties. Considered in this light, it seems hardly fair that I should be in line before my disabled neighbor.
It is also hard not to take the vaccine guilt business onto the global level, a peripheral part of the giant divide. America First isn’t going to cut it with this virus. I am enormously relieved to be vaccinated, and now I want my friends and neighbors – all of them, rich, poor, Democrats, Republicans to get vaccinated just as fast as humanly possible. If we reach herd immunity in the U.S., though, and the virus continues to rage across Africa, its mutant cousins are coming for us. Offering support for getting the vaccine into Ethiopian arms is less an altruistic wish than a matter of self-preservation. Would I have given up my dose for someone in Ethiopia? Or for anyone in the above demographics? Probably not. But this should not excuse me from wrestling with what is a national, universal ethical dilemma.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the battered democracy, the turbulence of racial and economic struggles – this is definitely the Year of Apprehension. We’ll probably all survive. Even if a lot of people continue to suffer and die and need our attention.
Given the difficulty of looking ahead, I dug into the archives for a look back. New Year blogs – and a bunch of New Year stories that pre-date the era of the blog – turn out to offer many bright spots and a little reassurance.
New Year’s 2000 – That one was fun. Remember the Y2K problem? The Millennium Bug? Computers everywhere, unequipped to deal with this new digit coming after 1999, would be crashing and burning and taking us all down with them? My husband and I actually attended a somewhat subdued New Year’s Eve dinner party at which one of the other guests was an official of a global engineering company which will remain un-named. He spent the evening with an ostentatious black box at hand – during dinner he did get it off the table and into his lap – because of mysterious dangers that might need his immediate attention at the stroke of midnight. We followed that stroke across time zones. Our highest moments of hilarity were speculating about exactly what that black box was going to do to us all when he pushed his magic button; our engineer friend was not amused. The covid bug does make the Y2K bug seem quaint.
When New Year’s 2009 arrived I was heavy into brain exercise, having become a participant in a brain health study not long before. That piece reflected on the proliferation of brain health studies – New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the University of Texas’ Center for Vital Longevity to name two – specifically targeting the aging population. The resultant general recommendation was for everyone to plunge into word games and math games and we’d all be fine. Having still never found the time to get into games of any sort, I guess my brain just continues to muddle along.
In 2010, as the year turned, I was still preoccupied with brain stuff: esoteric questions (and some more fancy studies) about the passage of time. It was a sort of “Where in the heck did ten years go?” rumination. Considering the fact that the past year has seemed at least thirty years long, this perspective also makes past issues seem quaint.
For many of the in between years I included a favorite poem, just because poetry seems a good way to start a new year. So for these troubled times I offer the first and last few verses of Ian Frazier’s priceless holiday poem “Greetings, Friends!” in the December 28 issue – back in that old year – of The New Yorker.
Friends one and all! Let us unmute,
Excite the timbrel and the lute,
Make merry with our pots and pan
(The hour is seven, so we can),
Shout from the balcony or lawn
For joy at what will soon be gone,
And praises sing for what is here:
The end to this undreamt-of year!
Frazier goes on for 70+ poignant and hilarious lines, rhyming in friends and neighbors and people we know of or wish we knew; and finally winds up thus:
Let gladness rise, despite, despite;
“Love one another” routs the night,
And kindness is a folding chair
We carry with us everywhere.
In depth of winter, prospects brighten;
Mighty streams of light will lighten
The miles ahead, and goodness reign –
Once more, the angels’ grand refrain!
Thanks, Ian Frazier, and everyone who helped us though the old year with reminders that grace and humor still abound.
“Everything is not either all bad or all good,” observed my friend Oli. “There’s a little bit of good in things that are bad, and a little bit of bad in things that are good.”
This was after a discussion of how COVID-19 is affecting the entire country, in ways almost too numerous to face. Oli tends to get deeply involved in conversations of these sorts.
“For example, take pollution,” he said. “Since we’ve been staying home more, pollution has fallen dramatically.” Other observations were possibly less significant, but still to the point: “Noses aren’t as cold as they used to be, thanks to mask-wearing.”
Oli is seven years old.
This issue is way beyond “Out of the mouths of babes . . .” Surviving the weeks and months ahead – vaccine or no vaccine – is going to take a good bit of creative effort. As someone who has not seen her family for well over a year, who has had moments of panic and nights of insomnia over exposure to the virus – real or imagined – and who suffers from hug-deprivation to a major extent, I do not look forward to more months and months of masking, distancing and observing every precaution 24 hours a day. Because I live in a senior housing facility I will probably be an early recipient of the vaccine, but little will change other than perhaps feeling a little personally safer. Too much remains unknown, too many people will continue to sicken and die well into the (otherwise surely happier) new year, but these vestiges of the old year need to hang out with us until a new normal evolves in the new one.
So how to get through it with our sanity?
I think Oli is onto something. Finding ways to counter the sadness, the feelings of isolation and desolation, the sheer continuing disorientation of the months ahead might just be easier if it’s possible to discern a little good within the bad – while minimizing the bad that clouds the good.
This site, over the past few months, has featured brief glimpses into the struggles of aging, the pleasures of city walks, the art of communicating while masked, San Francisco city life and California wildfires, and one of the many great losses of 2020: Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Looking back, there’s one common thread: good was always found alongside the bad.
RBG’s legacy is wide and lasting. Amid the horrors of the wildfires there were extraordinary acts of kindness. Masks can’t keep strangers from interacting with eye-messages. Outdoor dining might just become a permanent fixture across the U.S. as it’s long been elsewhere: think Parisian sidewalks. Even among the sequestered elderly, friends and laughter make life livable. And most recently, with the remarkable convergence of Jupiter and Saturn just before the solstice, there was proof that no amount of stress on earth can eliminate the wonder of the universe.
I am a hopelessly public social being. The annoying kind who says Hi there! and Good Morning! to every passerby on the sidewalk or the park trail. Who stops perfect strangers pushing strollers to comment on cute toddlers in puffy snowsuits. At random moments I’ve been known to walk up to frazzled moms in grocery stores whose small boys are demolishing the place and say, “One day he’ll be 26 and he’ll send you flowers for no reason at all, and you’ll know it was all worth it.”
So now, along with all the rest of you, I am silenced. Who can toss out a muffled Hi there! before the passerby has long passed? Masked strangers in their faces have to be pretty scary for toddlers in strollers. Increasingly isolated from friends and family by the coronavirus itself, we’re getting more isolated from our fellow masked humans by the day.
In the interest of brotherhood and sisterhood, I offer the following solutions:
The raised eyebrow hand salute. Starting about a yard or so from the passerby, raise both eyebrows simultaneously with the hand nearest the passerby, palm out. Works every time. Nobody even opens his or her mouth (risking the escape of those scary droplets) but you’ve acknowledged your fellow human, and your eyes have done the Hi there thing.
The eye-laugh. Trust me on this. The eye-laugh says Hi there, friend! If you actually (silently) laugh behind your mask, your eyes get friendly. Passing humans see a friendly passing human, which encourages us all to believe there is still humanity and friendliness in the world.
The open-eyed head tilt. If you don’t feel like laughing, you can try opening your eyes wide and tilting your head toward the passerby. This is the most abbreviated of Hi there!s. But interestingly enough, it often evokes an eye-laugh from a passing stranger.
Thanks to the ubiquity of Zoom gatherings, our colleagues and pods – friends & family & such as qualify for frequent contact – still recognize the bottom halves of our faces. The rest of humankind, though, are consigned to eye contact alone for now. When we’ll all be able to wander around unmasked again is an open question that only the very brave or very foolish are likely to try answering.
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex summed it up nicely in an op ed published recently by the New York Times: “We are adjusting to a new normal where faces are concealed by masks, but it’s forcing us to look into one another’s eyes – sometimes filled with warmth, other times with tears. For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.
There was dancing in the streets all over San Francisco on November 7th. I was walking in the Presidio, trying not to get wiped out by flying cyclists whizzing downhill shouting Biden/Harriss!!! It’s been pretty much party mode ever since.
But downtown — and in a few other areas — preparations had long been made for the mayhem that wasn’t. It would be hard not to agree with business owners who boarded up. Protests following the George Floyd killing and racial unrest at other times in recent months brought out the bad guys along with the earnest. There was widespread, costly looting. I live not far from a BevMo store that looked as if someone had tossed a large bomb through the front door. So if I owned a business I would have boarded up too.
Following the election of Joe Biden which was finally declared on Saturday, November 7th, though, there was only dancing. And since then, it’s fascinating to see signs of how life goes on around (and behind and in front of) the plywood. This is a quick Plywood City tour.
Some businesses behind the plywood have gone under and won’t be back. But others are bravely carrying on. At Louis Vuitton — there are people out there still buying $3,000 handbags? — a polite security guard at the door carefully limited the number of shoppers entering. And inside (the polite security guard let me peek) shoppers and staff kept their masks on and distances measured.
Local billboard creativity has definitely peaked. On some of the plywood sheets there were phone numbers to call or — frequently — “We’re Open!” messages pointing to the plywood door.
At some locations, the irony was painful. One nonprofit (not that far from the Louis Vuitton store, actually) which was created to help the homeless covered its plywood with optimistic messaging. But it managed to offer a likely spot for one down-on-his-luck guy to construct a resting place at the same time.
Still, high above the boarded-up storefronts and sheltered-in-place citizenry, somebody remembered to hoist the flag.